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r1ft Gaming Blog

A mirror of my gaming blog at r1ft.com. The jaded game designer turned corporate lackey. Feedback is always welcome.

Author: Daedren

A Letter to Curt Schilling and 38 Studios

Posted by Daedren Thursday April 24 2008 at 3:04AM
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38 Studios holds a special place in the hearts of many gamers, including myself, as being a faint ray of hope in an otherwise darkening genre of gaming that has slowly been taken over by idea-barren realm of the corporate machina. While we might not all have been Phillies fans, we can still appreciate someone with a real passion for gaming - enough to try their hand at making their own.

First, though, there is some explanation on why this article - normally filed safely into a sub-category to be shortly argued about and then disappear into the ether of our webserver - would be put as a featured article here at r1ft.com, a title only held by a subpar review of a PVP system and an article on inaptly named MMO's.

The reason is simple: the MMO market is becoming saturated and needs help.

We, as gaming consumers, need a collective breath of fresh air. We need an underdog to cheer for. We need someone to believe in; to provide us with a good medium where we can spend unhealthy amounts of time in. We'd like to give you, 38 Studios, our money. We're sick of unoriginality and corporate herd mindsets infecting our beloved genre. We enjoy our escapism, but we're often left with the choice of playing a sub-par product or nothing at all.

So please listen to this one little suggestion from us: Please do not make another Fantasy MMO.

A little background on this for those that haven't heard. Curt Schilling, of '93 World Series / Philly Pitcher fame, likes MMO's. He made a game studio a year or so ago, with the intent to make his own MMO after he retired. He's chosen the Fantasy genre to pour his talent and salary into. Reference article, courtesy of Tom's Games, can be found here.

38 Studios is sporting (pun intended) some serious talent with Todd McFarlane (aka Spawn) and R.A. Salvatore (aka Drizzt). While it may be perceived that they have these two creative geniuses caged in their basement, slowly drawing their awesomeness from them via an intricate series of tubes into their upcoming MMO - it's more likely that they're just wasting their creative abilities trying to compromise with a preconceived game idea of Fantasy Setting X. [digress]

Continuing...

38 Studios, I implore you to heed this advice. You cannot compete with World of Warcraft, Age of Conan *and* Warhammer Online (just to name a few). The thing is - you don't want to. This demographic is highly spoken for, and rest assured that every gamer with a penchant for Elves, Orcs and shiny metal armor has plenty of geek outlets to choose from already. Going this route is an upward battle that can't be won - at best you'll be able to stake out a small portion of real-estate in an inflated market while nearby land goes undeveloped.

This nearby undeveloped land I'm talking about has various flavors. The RTS (Real Time Strategy), Science Fiction and First Person Shooter markets are still ripe for MMO development. Vampires and Goth haven't been done much. The post-Apocalyptic genre is still fresh as well, with only small-time projects being released until my far-off Fallout MMO is made. As a game designer, working on this very same post-Apoc project, even I admit that the genre is still untapped, even if this means making a game that in direct competition with the Fallout IP.

We also have multiple smaller genres yet unexploited, like Steampunk and Cyberpunk. While I admit this is no small task in choosing a genre to develop a game in, from a marketing and common sense perspective, the Fantasy genre is not only a bad business decision - it shows a lack of creative ingenuity that the MMO industry truly lacks at the moment. Every kid and adult that wants to play around with swords and magic in an online, massive environment has many well established choices already. Meanwhile, those that enjoy a more modern landscape or science-fiction based story are left with very little in established games. The non-Fantasy MMO market is barren at the moment, with only a few small competitors in a virtually untapped market, with players yearning for some sort of epic world they can pour their lives into.

You might be saying "We can make a great game!". I don't doubt for a moment that you can. Even a mediocre title with the names of McFarlane and Salvatore on it will do at least mildly well in a content-starved market. You could also easily make a game that's better than anything on the market. Some people will play it, most people won't. You'll attract "New Game Hoppers" - and lose them when they next big game comes out - and be left with a small, loyal fanbase. The problem lies within what I call the "MMO First Love Syndrome". Nearly every MMOer has undying affection to their first MMO. People stay loyal to their first games. Unfortunately, for over 80% of the MMO Fantasy genre, their first game was World of Warcraft.

Warcraft: While it's true you'll find people that love and hate the game, the truth is that most people love the game - and you can't talk to them, because they are a bit too busy sitting in front of their computer in their pajamas to go out into the sunlight or even read a normal website. Warcraft will always have a loyal fanbase, for no other reason than the social relationships people have developed in the game. That, along with a crack-like addictive treadmill gear/leveling system, virtually guarantees the life expectancy of WoW to be healthy for a long, long time. People, for some reason, will be content with advancing to level 500 and happy with the same recycled loot with adjusted stats. They stay because it's familiar to them. Moving a whole guild or friend circle to another game is not an easy task.

Another reason not to cater to the Fantasy market is niching. Warhammer and Age of Conan saw a deficit in WoW, and marketed to it: Player versus Player combat. Age of Conan went a step further, catering to those that might enjoy a "Mature" MMO, complete with excessive violence and nudity. Lord of the Rings did the opposite, and catered to a PVE only crowd (mainly) using a very well established Intellectual Property, and has only had mild success. Staying within the Fantasy realm, we have no niches left, and you're left at just reusing the same ideas, over and over. One can only kill so many sewer rats or Orcs before they go mad.

Part of the reason of this criticism comes from a recent interview with Steve Danuser courtesy of Jon Wood and MMORPG.com. I quote:

Even Curt Schilling (better known for his fastball than his artistic abilities) provides a great amount of experience to the team. Schilling, according to Danuser, is used to accomplishing things that people think may be impossible. As a result, that attitude is passed onto the rest of the development team.
 

This is inspiring, but why does Curt need to try and achieve one unoriginal impossibility (creating yet another successful Fantasy MMO) and not go for one that kicks more ass, like creating a successful non-Fantasy MMO? You have the guy who created Spawn and the guy who wrote the Drizzt series of books - why not challenge them? Both would be just as comfortable in a non-Fantasy setting. Now, they're entering the MMO market with a challenge under the stigma of unoriginality.

In closing, 38 Studios, you have a company motto of: “How cool would it be if . . .”

How cool would it be if someone actually made a good non-Fantasy MMO?

I'll tell you: It would be cool of epic proportions. Dazzle us, 38 Studios. Your chosen genre is played out, past its time. Show us some of that ingenuity and creativity that we're so starved for. The hell with established business models and defacto consumer reports: If you want to win big, you have to put in all your chips.

Arudanel writes: How do you know his fantasy idea isn't original? You haven't even READ it. He said fantasy. he didn't say Talkien. he didn't say Warhammer (which is what WOW is, a Warhammer spinoff.) Lets face it. Westerns are cliche to the extreme. A handful would try it, and then head west, so to speak. Apocalypse- again a MAJORLY niche market. Scifi- that's 100% geek turf too. (and for those about to scream bashing or trolling- I'm a big scifi fan myself. but not so blind as to see that I'm a minority.) Simple facts to show- The fantasy market is far from played out. A GOOD game with Dragons? Horizons was ok, but plagued with problems. Centaur? Not that I know of. Merfolk, and whole sea zones? Nope. A dark fantasy game, A'la medieval Spawn stories? Again nope. Fantasy tends tog et lumped into 'Harry Potter or Tolkien' camps lately, and there is SO much more history, lore, and ideas to explore. Fantasy even gave us the bizarre, and confusing, but often fun Planescape setting and Ravenloft. There is SO much more fantasy to do, and do WELL. THAT is the selling point here. EQ2 was ok. WOW is fun, but my character looks like a box of crayolas blew up in their face. WAR and AOC are PVP, a different twist for each one. LOTRO is PVE, but stuck in a rigidly controlled and enforced lore-lock. This lore is ALL theirs. No one elses at all. No one can tell them 'OH NO You can't kill that NPC in this storyline quest!' because all of the NPCs are theirs. I hear a vocal minority screaming that fantasy is played out, and yet every fantasy game sells more than the last. Sorry, but I'm afraid the paying masses haven't realized they're all buying a dead genre yet. Thu Apr 24 2008 4:39AM Report
chillsan writes:

I think you're right that it's saturated with fantasy mmos but what I think is missing is a truely deep fantasy mmo with PVP and modern graphics that don't look like cartoons. It seems like I am able to think of bits and pieces game A and game B and Game C have but neither have them both or all together.

What I would like is the adrenaline rush Fury, the world PVP of Conan with travel and the character and world complexity of Fallout. I indeed wonder what the perfect MMO is and it's one where I feel attached to my character not out of level but out of uniqueness though not mandatory items, to the feel of combat intuitiveness.

Now someone should send a letter to get APB out of Webzens hands lol. :D

 

Thu Apr 24 2008 6:33AM Report
Zimba writes:

But the scifi market is still pretty "untouched", most of the MMO out of Asia, for example, are fantasy, meaning medieval, as is the trend at the moment in the western markets. Im sure a game with a post apocalyptic theme, like the fallout series, would have a very loyal and big fanbase. At the moment I feel like I am forced to play fantasy, because there really isn't good scifi to be played. I tried EVE for a few months, but that wasn't my cup of tea. Neocron has a nice atmosphere, but the player base is so small, and the game is pretty ugly. AO is just too much of a grind, and I would love to see more cramped up city areas, like in Neoron, to give it more of a bladerunner feel. Not too many futuristic MMOs published as of recent, which is a shame really...

Thu Apr 24 2008 6:40AM Report
JB47394 writes:

I know that I have no problem with more fantasy games.  It's like having another card game to try.  Same cards, different rules - except that the game makers aren't changing the rules.  They keep giving us games of poker.  Five Card Draw.  Seven Card Stud.  Texas Hold'em.  The cards have become prettier, but they're being used in minor variations on the same game.  There are many other ways to entertain us by using the fantasy deck.

Thu Apr 24 2008 6:46AM Report
grimfall writes:

Asking Schilling, McFarlane and Salvatore to make a non-fantasy game is just pissing in the wind.

Most of your points are valid, some are not.  EQ, the first king of western MMO's lost about 70% of it's player base within 18 months of WoW being released (I am not sure what EQ did to UO but would guess it was similar).  70% of 10 million is 7 million people for 38 Studios to canabalize just from WoW subsscribers.

No one has been able to offer  a stable  dynamic world in an MMO yet (sorry Horizons and Shadowbane), that is certainly a niche crying to be filled - though it doesn't have to be a fantasy game.

Both 38 Studios and Bioware are likely to release fantasy based MMO's.  Since I am not really addicted to any one at this moment, that doesn't bother me too much, but I definetly would like to try a 'AAA' Sci Fi or Apocalyptic one.

Thu Apr 24 2008 6:49AM Report
Daedren writes:

As always, thanks for the feedback everyone.

@Arudanel: While I agree that the premise of the "Fantasy" game hasn't been announced by 38 Studios, there were hints / suggestions that it was taking an Elf / Orc / Sword / Magic feel to it.

Also, by your reasoning, you could consider any game not based on realism "Fantasy". Post-apoc? Fantasy. Vampires? Fantasy. Cyberpunk? Fan-ta-sy.

I agree certain liberties were taken in the assumptions of my arguments.

@Zimba: You hit it right on the head, my man. I'm in the same boat - I tried EVE, thought "meh" and I haven't found anything worth my time since.

@JB47394: That's fine and all, but you would be categorized into the market already account for. You might not like any non-Fantasy based games. Nothing wrong with that, but your tastes are already heavily catered to by existing products.

Meanwhile, a huge untapped market base is sitting, playing their FPS and nightly RTS matches, or replaying Vampire the Masquerade or the Fallout series. Or they play the current MMO's just because it fulfills their "MMO need". These people would be very keen on a good, solid alternate genre MMO.

Thu Apr 24 2008 6:55AM Report
Daedren writes:

@grimfall: I don't agree with McFarlane and Salvatore not being able to do a non-Fantasy based MMO. I won't put any limits on McFarlane's artistic abilities. Salvatore has written some sci-fi stuff, including the novel edition of Episode II of Star Wars. He might be famous for Forgotten Realms and Drizzt - but honestly, if they make a Forgotten Realms MMO, God help us all.

Just what we need, yet another game where we can run around as Elves and Hobbits.

Anyway, these guys are suppose to be creative geniuses. Let them work. Give them some leeway. Failure to do so will only result in further dilution of the market and another could-have would-have situation to learn from.

Thu Apr 24 2008 7:03AM Report
Giddian writes:

There is A reason they keep Fantasy Games. People Like them. Plain and Simple. If the Company didn't make money on it, they wouldnt make it. Most Companies look at it this way.

Should we invest in Something that is Going to make us Money, or Something that MIGHT make Money.

Not Saying your Idea is bad. It Isnt. It sounds Cool, But Companies look at what is going to make money. They want a sure thing,

Thu Apr 24 2008 8:53AM Report
Daedren writes:

@Giddian: A sure thing? That's like only making actions movies because those sell the best.

Even Tabula Rasa, as horrible is that game is (oh, and it's bad) - has a small loyal fanbase that just gets spoonfed the crap that Garriott's minions give them.

The same goes with any game, really. No matter how bad it is, or how saturated its genre is, it'll at least sell a bit and have a small to moderate fan base.

If that is 38 Studio's vision, fine. If they want moderate success and small fan bases, they should continue on this road of Fantasy mediocrity.

Myself, I wouldn't feel comfortable pouring my money and years of my life into developing mediocrity. I'd like to go for the gold. That's what the letter was about - going for the gold.

Thu Apr 24 2008 9:04AM Report
Protest writes:

Fantasy as a genre has been pretty popular for thousands of years. With all due respect, when I hear talk of "market saturation", it is never followed by any solid economic evidence to support this claim. It is usually uttered by someone who is, admittedly, burnt out on the fantasy genre (or mmos in general), and decides to project their personal preferences on the, ever-ambiguous, "market".

As someone who works in the marketing field, I can tell you that there is absolutely zero evidence that the fantasy genre is in any danger of falling out of fashion with gamers anytime soon. Fantasy has remained in fashion for literally thousands of years; there must be something to it. If 38 studios wants to "go for the gold" they are on precisely the right track. Those that feel they would be more successful by dabbling in Sci-Fi or Steampunk or vampires (shudder), are merely expressing their personal preference, which is fine, but it certainly is not a credible economic forecast, by any stretch.

At the end of the day, it is the quality of the product, not the genre, that speaks for itself. Anyone who feels otherwise is expressing a personal preference. The proof is in the pudding, on both sides. There is no proof in the prediction, on both sides.

Thu Apr 24 2008 10:49AM Report
JB47394 writes:

Daedren: "You might not like any non-Fantasy based games."

I said that I have no problem with more fantasy games.  That doesn't mean that I have a problem with other games.  Other genres are just fine.  In truth, I don't really care about the setting so much as I care about the gameplay.  I definitely want to see the gameplay change, but that can happen with or without a change of fiction.

Thu Apr 24 2008 11:11AM Report
Zimba writes:

I agree that fantasy is in fashion, but I don't see why it couldn't change. Eventually there will be someone who will make a scifi MMORPG that will gather the masses, just like WoW has done with fantasy genre. Blizzard probably could do it if they wanted, but then they would be eating their own bread. I think there is an opportunity, but it is definately a big risk as well. Tabula Rasa as an example. Those who want to play fantasy, are playin fantasy at the moment, but I think there is a lot of people playing fantasy, just because the best games, by far, are indeed fantasy games. There is really no 3rd person scifi MMORPG that I would recommend to anyone at the moment.

Thu Apr 24 2008 11:13AM Report
BlackWatch writes:

The low-tech worlds based in the Euro-Middle-Age settings are popular, but I agree that we need some diversity.   I'm sick of Knights, castles, and riding around horseback.  Let's get over the elf-dwarf-orc-ogre-troll-gnome fascination already.

I'd like to find something that's really more of a vision of the future.  Something 'evolved'... something that illustrates advancement in time, not reflection. 

I can only play so many versions of Paladin, Knight, Mage, Priest, Monk, etc.,.. before I just think 'I've been here before' with each MMO that I try.  Each MMO feels less like a new game and nothing more than an expansion or an alternate version of the world the previous game just threw at me.  

Non-fantasy MMORPG does NOT = FPS-hybrid.  I love my FPS games and I love my MMORPG's, but let's keep them as far apart as wives and mistresses.   (please see current states of SWG and Tabula Rasa for references)

Thu Apr 24 2008 11:34AM Report
Gishgeron writes:

  Protest:  We speak of market saturation because it DOES exist, in this market anyway.  In single player games, or console games...there never really is a saturation because all players can and will own and play as many of them as they want.  MMO players typically only subscribe to one MMO at a time...and since the fantasy genre is being dominated by EQ2, WoW, and LOTR it stands to reason that any attempt to hop on the Fantasy bandwagon is going to have to be a massive improvement to the genre as a whole if they are gonna touch those games and take their subscribers.

  Which, is really what this boils down to.  The MMO market has basically all the players it ever going to at this point.  That means that any fantasy game wishing to succeed is going to have to plan around stealing WoW players or LOTR players.  Personally, that doesn't sound like a sound financial adventure to me...as both of those games have a ton of polish and really experienced teams working them.  For some newbie team to try and tackle them is suicide.

Thu Apr 24 2008 11:40AM Report
Daedren writes:

@Protest: Thanks for the feedback, it's good to have an official "marketing" prospective here on the subject.

In response, though, I have to agree with Gishgeron. While it's true that the Fantasy genre "works" - as in, it's a proven business model - ignoring the other untapped markets is a major marketing oversight, from what I understand. While I don't have a degree in marketing, as a game developer and player I have a good understanding of what the market is like as in terms of what people want and what people will pay for.

Think of it as only focusing, as a record company, on only one type of "music" that is considered the mainstream, like Pop. Ok, most people like Pop, they listen to it on the radio and sign along with Britney and record sales are good. However, a good portion of people also detest this music for the most part. They just listen to it because it's the only thing new coming out these days. They listen to their indy-punk and metal or whatever, and they enjoy it, but day after day, pop-crap gets churned out of the record industry. They are hardpressed to find artists they like.

Now, if the record company took on different genres, they could be a huge success. If they won't, because they have no record of a "market success" or proven model of a non-pop album selling well, that's pretty close-minded in my opinion.

Not sure if that analogy worked. :)

Fri Apr 25 2008 4:40AM Report
baumjoe writes:

While I agree with pretty much everything every one above me has posted I have to say the fantasy mmo market is rather played out at the moment. I would have to say to any one making a fantasy mmo right now your going to have to take large step away from "A typical" fantasy mmo. right now what the market needs is a mmo in a diffrenty setting pherhaps sci-fi being as there is maybe one decent one out right now eve online any one. Any ways right now i couldn't care less for a fantasy mmo my money is on stargate worlds
 its finally out of the woodworks and is incredibly close to the beta.

Fri Apr 25 2008 7:38AM Report
Butterball writes:

I agree that 38 Studies should ditch the whole, overdone, cliche ridden fantasy world idea.

Personally I would love to see them try to get someone like Neil Gaiman on board - as a McFarlane/Gaiman Steampunk/Cthulhoid type MMO would really kick ass.

Fri Apr 25 2008 9:16AM Report
Daedren writes:

Butterball, that idea nearly exploded with the amount of sheer preposed awesomeness. ;)

Fri Apr 25 2008 9:55AM Report
grimfall writes:

@Daedren,

It doesn't matter if you agree with it or not, it's already decided.  Dig around and you can find the Schilling quote which I paraphrased.

Mon Apr 28 2008 7:25AM Report
Daedren writes:

@grimfall: It's never late to change, my man. Going balls out on something that's already fighting an uphill battle is risky. It'd be a great statement to see them cash their chips in and go with something more original and creative.

You're right though, it doesn't matter if I agree with it or not.

Tue Apr 29 2008 3:31AM Report
Melf_Himself writes:

I have to say I hated the idea of a non-fantasy MMO IP. But a friend got into Hellgate: London and so I tried it out against my better judgement.

I actually really enjoyed the setting. They still kept a swords/magic feel about it, but it was very fururistic, and while the whole post-apocalyptic, last vestige of the human race on the verge of extinction thing is cliche in the movie world, it seemed pretty fresh in the MMO genre.

Of course, the game sucks, but that's not the point - the setting was good.

My advice to the fellows at '38: make whatever setting your artists think will create the highest immersion factor.

Tue Apr 29 2008 4:27AM Report

MMORPG.com writes:
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